An interview with
Peggy Lee (2005)

By Beppe Colli
Feb. 13, 2005

Listening during the same week to two CDs that see her performing both as an "instant composer" (the CD Intersection Poems, by Horvitz/Samworth/Lee/Clark/van der Schyff) and as a composer tout court (Worlds Apart, the third album by the Peggy Lee Band) convinced me that it was time to have a chat with Peggy Lee.

Peggy Lee is a cello player that I first met on an album by Canadian guitarist/composer René Lussier that saw the participation of the NOW Orchestra (Le Tour Du Bloc, 1995); then I noticed her presence on two albums by George Lewis that saw the NOW Orchestra appearing: Endless Shout (2000) and The Shadowgraph Series (2001). While the improvised trio with drummer Dylan van der Schyff and saxophone and clarinet player Michael Moore appearing on the live Floating 1...2...3 CD (2002) showed Lee to be perfectly at ease, the albums released under the name Peggy Lee Band that I listened to - Sounds From The Big House (2002) and Worlds Apart - showed a clean writing style.

What follows is the result of a conversation that took place last week, via e-mail.

I'd like to know about the way you started developing an interest in music - what kind of music you found stimulating, the reason why you chose the cello as your instrument and so on.

Well I started the cello at the age of 13 because the school I was moving to was known for it's orchestral program. I already had had lessons in piano and guitar but the cello quickly became my instrument. I listened to a lot of classical music of course as well as plenty of Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan... Improvised music and jazz came much later for me after I realized that I wasn't cut out to play in orchestras and wanted to have some kind of say in my musical journey.

The first record I bought on which you appeared was Le Tour Du Bloc by René Lussier. Would you mind talking about that particular experience - the way it came into being, your perspective on it, etc.?

Le Tour du Bloc was a really fun project. I was really taken by Rene's writing and the way he incorporated the improvisations into it. I also thought he found just the right place for each of the individual personalities to shine (quite a feat given that he doesn't reside in Vancouver and we were all new to him).

The NOW Orchestra has collaborated with great musicians such as Barry Guy, George Lewis (on Endless Shout and The Shadowgraph Series), Vinny Golia... I'm sure there are others I don't know about. Would you mind talking a bit about these collaborations?

Each NOW collaboration has brought out a different sound from the band and we have learned from each of these artists. Barry has an incredible energy that is impossible not to get swept up in. The performances are always exciting. George put us through our paces with his compositions in rehearsals but he also has a very dynamic performance energy as does Vinny. I think that Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris both took a more internal approach pushing towards the more subtle textures. They have all been good experiences.

You appear on quite a few CDs alongside Dylan van der Schyff - I know there's also a duo CD (that I've never listened to). And I really liked your trio CD Floating 1...2...3 with Michael Moore. Would you tell me more about your musical partnership with his drums?

Well I have been working with Dylan since I have been improvising so his influence on my development as a creative musician is immeasurable. I owe a lot to him but it has always been so easy. I remember when he suggested that we record a duo of improvisations and I wasn't really sure but as soon as we started to play the music just flowed effortlessly. I always enjoy any chance to play together which unfortunately has been less over the years because we have kids. (Which is not unfortunate! They are incredible.)

I've never listened to the first CD by the Peggy Lee Band. Would you tell me about the reasons why you decided to start a band?

I put together my band because I loved the players and at that time they hadn't worked much together in other contexts. I wanted to start writing music and I found it easier if I could hear in my head each of their sounds. Their individual voices reflect the different influences in my writing.

Though I liked the second Peggy Lee Band CD, Sounds From The Big House, I liked the recent Worlds Apart more. Tell me about the way you see the sextet's progression up to now.

I think that over the course of three albums the collective improvising has reached a new place. Of course it would develop much more if we toured but again the balancing of the family comes to play. When we do play live I am leaning towards more open spaces so that the music doesn't get too set.

I seemed to detect the influence of Wayne Horvitz on the title-track of the Sounds From The Big House CD. You played with him in a concert that's been released on the recent Intersection Poems CD. Has he really been an influence on your composing?

That's funny. I did think of Wayne when I was writing the counter-melody to that tune but nobody has mentioned it before. I think that I had just come back from playing an evening of his compositions in Seattle. His music is definitely an influence as is that of his wife, Robin Holcomb.

What's the situation like in Vancouver when it comes to avant-garde, jazz and experimental music in general?

Vancouver has the reputation of having a very open scene when it comes to the relationship between the various musical communities and I think that that is fair. The Jazz festival here always includes a broad perspective on the music. And there is some support from the new music scene for improvisation.

Your favourite cellist nowadays? And what about bass players?

I don't think that I can come up with a favorite anything right now...

Composition has been declared dead quite a few times. In your opinion, what are the elements that make a composition sound fresh?

For me if I am playing through composed music then to play it as if I am improvising keeps it fresh. If the piece incorporates improvisation, then to really and truly improvise with no preconceptions keeps it interesting.

What's in store for experimental music? More money, bigger audiences - or (yikes!) a descent into obscurity?

I don't know that I even play experimental music. It's just music that makes sense to me given who I am and where I come from. I will continue with it regardless of the size of the audience or the money involved. I would presume that that would apply to most of us outside the mainstream. I don't think it's dying anyway!

The way you see the Web (in its various guises) when it comes to the evolving patterns of consumption on the part of the audience.

Well I'm not as hooked up as I could or probably should be but I can see the potential for getting the music to those who are interested much more efficiently than in the past.

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Feb. 13, 2005